Shannon Kincaid (Brooklyn College)

Democratic Ideals and the Urban Experience

"The test of civilization is the power of drawing the most benefit out of cities."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

            There are two persistent yet competing trends apparent in the development of American democracy.  On the one hand, there is the "agrarian ideal" presented in Jeffersonian republicanism.  On the other is Hamilton's federalism, and his account of the necessity of social institutions in the construction and maintenance of civic character.  For Jefferson, a just society was a society based on pastoral ideals of self-sufficiency and a form of "spiritual unity" with the processes of the natural environment.  For Hamilton, civic character demanded civic investment in the development of character.  According to Hamilton, it was through large-scale institutions that the character of the citizenry was formed, and (unlike Jefferson) he believed that people needed social institutions to guide their moral development. 

            One of the core issues arising from this tension between agrarianism and the Hamiltonian social "machine" is the role of the urban experience in the development of democratic ideals.  There has been a tendency to identify urban America with the Hamiltonian vision of society, and to contrast this with the pastoral ideas of Jeffersonianism.  Yet this identification is limited, both in its understanding of the connections between rural and urban life, and also in the relationship it draws between social institutions and moral development.  Both Hamilton and Jefferson saw civil society in moral terms (unlike contemporary proceduralists).[1]  Yet they disagreed on the function of social institutions in the development of moral norms.  Where Hamilton saw society as a means of controlling the negative impulses of an often "non-rational" populace, Jefferson saw political institutions as a drain on moral development.  In other words, both accepted an undeniable connection between politics and morality, but where one wanted to develop social institutions to control moral development, the other held that moral development was necessarily independent of social institutions.     

            For Jefferson, the "moral-sense" of the citizenry was grounded in his commitment to the moral preferability of agrarian life.  Jefferson repeatedly claimed that working the land provided moral insight, and that close ties with the natural environment were tantamount to individual moral development.  Jefferson had little patience for the city dweller, who he saw as removed from the "noble existence" of pastoralism.[2]  For Jefferson, the key to the development of a just society lay in the cultivation of the moral traits of agrarianism.  As Ralph Ketcham argues, Jefferson had a social ideal based on

            ...a pastoral or yeoman republic that infused his every word and deed in the fabled fifty years between 1776 and his death....The basic concern is to characterize the good person.  The pastoral setting, though of great importance, is instrumental; that is, we are asked to admire a farmer or a shepherd or a country gentleman not ultimately for economic contribution or aesthetic fineness, but for moral integrity, for personal style, for harmony in social life.[3]

            In contrast to Jefferson's agrarian ideal, Hamilton argued that social justice necessarily depended upon the detailed planning and development of social institutions.  Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton held out little hope for "natural virtues" effectively guiding political institutions.  In his address to the Federal Convention of June 18, 1787, he argued that "[t]he voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and, however generally the maxim has been studied and believed, it is not true to fact.  The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge to determine right."   Four days later, he spoke in even stronger terms:  "Take mankind in general; they are vicious, their passions may be operated upon."[4]  For Hamilton, the "moral" of social organization was a product of social institutions, not agrarian values, and the foundation of a just society lay in the creation and efficient maintenance of socio-political institutions which could control the inherent vices of humanity.   As Hamilton argued in  Federalist #15, "[w]hy was the government instituted at all?  Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without restraint."[5]  To Jefferson's horror, Hamilton established a national bank, and advocated the fiscal advantages to be gained through a national debt which would underwrite economic development.  As Ketcham argues, Hamilton's civic ideals

            required, obviously, a strong, efficient government with authority, one in short, with `energy,` a favorite word of Hamilton's.  He supposed individual dignity and meaning received its definition trickle-down fashion from the nature of the totality, from the greatness of the nation as a whole.  Thus Hamilton wanted always to plan from the top down....[6]

            This emphasis on structure and detailed planning stands in stark contrasts to Jefferson's pastoral ideals.  In contrast to the "purity" of agrarianism, Hamilton's vision of America had a distinctly urban flavor, one dominated by the types of planning and development accompanying the growth of cities.  As Garry Wills argues:

            The conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton was real, almost as much a matter of          personality as of principle.  Jefferson, a gentleman farmer, disliked the professional politician., the man without independent land to stand on, one who must live by      serving a constituency.  Neither position is, in itself, democratic.  It is said that    Hamilton loved power, and he certainly admired efficiency - a spirit that was            necessary to the Revolution, and one that always needs watching. [7]

            The tension between these two theoretical approaches to democracy, exemplified in some ways by the contrasts between the rural and urban experience, plays an important role in the development of American political practice.  Indeed, concepts like "suburban sprawl" have become loaded with the ideological content of the "urban vs. rural" debate.  And in this context, the crucial question becomes:  "What role does the urban experience play in the development of the "American Ideal?" For any good pragmatic naturalist, the obvious answer is "an important one," but what features of the urban and rural experience are we to integrate into the construction of our communal identities, aspirations, and desires?

            To best answer these questions, we must first delve a bit deeper into the nature of urban and rural experiences.  On the one hand, the rural experience is one in which political institutions and projects play a secondary role in the individual's daily interactions with the natural environment.  In other words, the large-scale developments of industrialized society are felt only indirectly, and the primary mode of experience is one in which the individual exerts influence and control over the "natural" world in the satisfaction of need.  Conceived of in these terms, the appreciation of nature is cultivated on a daily basis, and is an important component of moral development.  Here, one need only recall Thoreau, and where he says that "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."[8]

            On the other hand, the urban experience is typified by the daily interaction with both large scale institutional projects and developments, and also with large numbers of people who are often coming from diverse backgrounds, and whose ideals and aspirations often differ from our own.   

            Clearly, each set of experiences contain negative aspects.  Rural life is continually threatened with parochialism and myopia, given the lack of social interaction with diverse peoples.  The urban experience tends toward a lack of appreciation for the natural environment, and is predisposed to the vices which typically accompany contemporary urban life.  In the light of these shortcomings, our attention necessarily turns to the foundations of urban studies and contemporary society.

            Lewis Mumford holds a strange place in American philosophy.  For those of us who hold John Dewey as one of the "prime movers" of contemporary American philosophy, Mumford is typically seen in a critical context.  For Deweyans, Mumford is most famous for his scathing criticisms of pragmatism in general, and of Dewey in particular.  As Robert Westbrook demonstrates in his account of the Dewey/Mumford debate, Mumford was highly critical of pragmatism, and while he often reserved his most pointed comments for William James, his account of Dewey was less than glowing.  According to Mumford, Dewey's version of pragmatism suffered from a sort of scientistic confusion, and instead of effectively developing the means by which to secure a better society, functioned merely to provide philosophical support to the burgeoning military-industrial complex, and thus sacrificed vision to purely practical concerns.  According to Westbrook, Mumford criticized Dewey, not solely on the grounds that pragmatism emphasized science and technology per se, but that "Dewey had devoted inadequate attention to the ends to which these means should be turned and seemed to believe that ideals would simply come into existence of their own accord and that the critical task was on of devising means to their achievement."[9]  In other words, Mumford's biggest criticism of Dewey lay in his account of Dewey as an apologist for a blind faith in the progress of science, and that he was therefore an unwitting apologist for the scientifically-oriented military and industrial sectors of society.

            Mumford was opposed to what he saw in Dewey as a form of technological fetishism, and he criticized the pragmatic program on its scientific emphases at the expense of philosophical vision, and the resulting loss of the more "spiritual" side of human experience.  According to Westbrook, Mumford believed that scientific inquiry had produced technological developments which led to the decline in the quality of living of the individual members of society.  For Mumford, science had supported industrialization, and was thus responsible for many of the social ills of society.  For Mumford, technological fetishism had created cities marked by despair, and steeped in "technological advances" which led to a general decline in the quality of urban life.  Indeed, in criticizing Dewey's prose, Mumford once argued that reading Dewey was "worse" than a subway ride,[10] highlighting his dissatisfaction both with Dewey's pragmatism and the technologies which had led to the decline in the urban quality of life.  And in supporting scientific inquiry at the cost of philosophic vision, Mumford held that pragmatism in general, and Dewey in particular, had failed to address the social ills of the day.              Westbrook argues that there is a deliberateness to Mumford's apparent misreading of Dewey, and there is little doubt that in his criticisms of Dewey he tended toward the uncharitable.  This is especially apparent in his criticism of Dewey's supposed "lack of vision."  Yet Mumford's primary work was focused on a the criticism of the processes of industrialized society, and in this context, his inability to recognize the vision of Deweyan pragmatism was most likely rooted in his own dissatisfaction with urban industrialization.  In his work on the urban experience, from his landmark works The Culture of Cities and The City in History, to The Urban Prospect, Mumford continually railed against the development of the "megalopolis," with its sprawling, isolated suburbs joined only by monotonous superhighways leading to barren, unlivable "downtowns."  For Mumford, the true urban experience was one in which individuals lived and worked in diverse, multi-faceted "neighborhood/towns," unified regionally into metropolitan units.  These units were, according to Mumford, designed to meet the needs of all members of the population, from infancy to old-age, and would provide a catalyst for the development of a wide diversity of social interaction. 

            For Mumford, as for many social theorists, crime and vice are tied to impoverished environments.  Young people, deprived of social activities and interaction create their own diversions, and without proper guidance and support, these activities often degenerate into criminal activity.  Where social existence lacks adequate care and support for care-givers, those in need of support, from children to the elderly, languish in institutions which function primarily as human warehouses.  Breaking the cycle of "suburban" decay was, for Mumford, a matter of taking control of urban development, and breaking free of the assumptions of industrialization.  Again demonstrating his dissatisfaction with Dewey, he argues that we cannot merely take for granted the assumptions of the technological-industrial complex.  Mumford argues that as a society, we face a profound choice in determining urban development, and we can either

            ...rob ourselves of [the benefits of civic development] by adjusting our plans to the forces that were dominant in the recent past; or we can remold our plans and guide our actions in terms of a more desirable future.  This alternative goes down to the very roots of social philosophy.  John Dewey has implicitly warned us of the fallacy of the first attitude; for in dealing with social facts that lie in the future, our hypothesis and our working plan are among the elements that determine the outcome.[11]

            Cringing at what he saw as the negative implications of large-scale projects such as the interstate highway system and the urban planning philosophies of people like Robert Moses, Mumford argued that American society stood at a crucial point in its development.  For Mumford, the history of American social development was marked by three distinct historical phases.  Initially, there was the "First America," the historical epoch marked by the settlement of the eastern seaboard, and the development of cities noted for their balance of regional resources, and for their synthesis of industrial and agricultural forms of life.  The second migration built upon this initial settlement, expanding westward, and laying the foundations for the development of the agricultural settlements and industrial towns of the western states.  The third migration was a renewed concentration of human talent and industrial materials in urban areas.  For Mumford, these "three migrations have covered the continent and knitted together its present framework; and our efforts to promote social welfare, to 'make crooked cities straight,' and to conduct industries efficiently are based for the most part on the notion that this framework is complete and satisfactory - and final."[12]

            Mumford argued that American society was at a crucial historical juncture, one in which the assumptions of an industrialized nation would either determine future development and urban planning, or where new approaches to the creation of urban environments could transcend the problems inherent in the industrial mind-set.  The construction of this "fourth migration"was, for Mumford, necessarily dependent on innovations in technology and communication, but unlike the industrial demands of the third migration (which sacrificed adequate homes and communities to profit), this "new wave" of urbanization was based on planning and development which took the requirements of "quality of life" issues seriously, and which developed urban areas in the interests of people not profit.

            Through their many disagreements, Mumford and Dewey shared many of the same convictions.  One of their most important similarities was in their respective accounts of the development of American society.  Like Mumford, Dewey believed that American social history had three phases, marked respectively by 1) settlement and agrarian development, 2) westward expansion and industrialization, and 3) urban growth.  For Dewey, these historical phases played an important role in the development and maintenance of democratic ideals, for throughout each of these phases, the goals of American society remained relatively stable.  The Jeffersonian social ideals of justice, equality, freedom, and community are important, but as Dewey points out, they are in need of constant revision in light of new social developments.  For Dewey, the very fact that the Jeffersonian social ideal was developed in a time in which land was plenty, and natural resources lay undeveloped, means that these ideals must be rewritten in the contemporary context.  In other words, Dewey believed that the changing contextual features of American society demanded new approaches to our social ideals, and he argued that " social and political means must be set up to give the ideal of equality of opportunity any reality.  We must either admit that ideal was a dream that had meaning only as long as there was free land, or else we must take measures to provide an effective substitute for the opportunities that free land held out."[13] 

            As Dewey points out, the Declaration of Independence was written just ten years after the development of the steam engine, and that technological advances "have been more numerous in the last half-century and have produced more social changes than occurred in all the thousands of years of man's life on earth before that time."[14]  And while Dewey saw Jefferson as "the father of American democracy," he believed that American social values and ideals must be constantly "re-contextualized" in light of technological advancesfor them to play an effective role in the continuing development of American society.

            In this sense, one might argue that Mumford and Dewey were closer in spirit than might initially be assumed.  Both believed that democratic values and ideals must be open to reflection and development in light of a changing social context if they are to remain democratic.  Yet this observation must be developed if we are to address the continuing tensions between Hamiltonianism and Jeffersonianism.  Both Dewey and Mumford are critical of the Hamiltonian account of social control, and would be dissatisfied with Hamilton's elitist, "top-down" model of social planning and control.  Yet both agree that Jefferson's pastoralism can only take us so far in the account of contemporary social development. 

            The key to addressing these tensions lies in the account of the role of the contemporary urban experience in the development and construction of social ideals.  As mentioned earlier, one of the key characteristics of the urban experience is the experience of diversity, and the daily interaction with individuals from a wide variety of socio-cultural backgrounds.  Jefferson's pastoral ideal cannot account for this brand of urban experience, nor does Hamilton's social "machine" appreciate it. 

            The problems here recall the tensions between substantivists and proceduralists in contemporary democratic theory.  One the one hand, substantivists typically threaten an appreciation for diversity by subsuming all cultural groups under a single set of (universal?) moral guidelines, while on the other hand, proceduralists do little to promote the development of diversity in their attempt to create culturally "neutral" social institutions.  And, though we have seen that Jefferson and Hamilton are both substantivists, each of their conceptions of social organization and planning parallels this contemporary debate in many ways, and demonstrates the shortcomings in each of their respective accounts.  At bottom, the issue is not one of how to overcome diversity, to tolerate it, or to control it, but to embrace and develop it.  On these grounds, the exposure to cultural diversity becomes the key contribution provided by the urban experience in the attempt to reformulate the Jefferson/Hamilton debate in contemporary terms.       

            Of course, this is not to claim that urban life is somehow superior in that it cultivates an appreciation for diversity.  One can live in an urban area and never stray beyond the boundaries of one's own neighborhood.  And in the same sense, rural life is not necessarily tied to a lack of exposure to diverse perspectives.  Modern methods of travel and communication, along with the inclusion of diverse perspectives in the processes of education make possible the development of the appreciation of diverse perspectives in any environment.  But it is the urban experience that brings this interaction, recognition, and appreciation for cultural diversity to the forefront of everyday existence.

            Diversity is the lifeblood of contemporary American democracy.  It is the plurality of cultural perspectives that drives the construction of social ideals.  It is the ability to bring members of diverse cultural groups together, in both work and play, that makes the democratic experience unique.  Both Dewey and Mumford would agree that the construction of social ideals, as an ongoing process, must necessarily include the voices of all affected by social policies and programs to be called democratic.  And both would agree that social planning and development must address more than economic concerns, but must take into to consideration the development of the potentialities of human nature, both in social institutions and in physical environment.  And the only way to cultivate this development is to actively aim at inclusivity and comprehensiveness in the construction of social institutions.[15]

            It was Walt Whitman who best synthesized these aspects of American society into a comprehensive philosophic vision, and who developed the recognition and appreciation for both urban and rural experiences.  Like the transcendentalists, he felt that the understanding of human being's relation to their natural environment was tantamount to individual moral development.  But Whitman went a step further, identifying the characteristics of American democracy in general, and the urban experience in particular, and the role they played in the development of both individual and civic development.

            For Whitman, the United States are "the greatest poem," and he argued that the diversity of perspective inherent in American society was "indispensable to counterbalance the inertness and fossilism making so large a part of human institutions."[16]  For Whitman, like Dewey and Mumford, there could be no "complete or epical presentation of democracy in the aggregate, or anything like it, at this day, because its doctrines will only be effectually incarnated in any one branch, when, in all their spirit is at the root and center."[17]

            For Whitman, and as defended in this essay, freedom consists not in ability to leave society, or to make society, but in being social, in interacting, caring, and loving those around us.  Freedom is freedom to live "with," freedom to chose associations, and to locate ourselves within the vast diversity of human perspectives.  The urban experience unifies these perspectives without reducing them, for we all share the same sorts of urban experiences.  It forces us to reflect on ourselves, on our societies, and our aspirations.  It rejects complacency for active engagement, and it drives a common inquiry into the ways in which we understand ourselves and our society.  As Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas,

            ...I am now again in New York City and Brooklyn...The splendor, picturesqueness, and oceanic amplitude and rush of these great cities, the unsurpassed situation, rivers and bay, sparkling sea-tides, costly and lofty new buildings, facades of marble and iron, of original grandeur and elegance of design,...the tumultuous streets, Broadway, the heavy, low, musical roar, hardly ever intermitted, even at night...the great Central Park, and the Brooklyn park of hills...- the assemblages of citizens in their groups, conversations, trades, evening amusements...the like of these completely satisfy my senses of power, fullness, motion, etc,. and give me, through such senses and appetites, and through my aesthetic conscience, a continued exaltation and absolute fulfillment.[18]

            For Whitman, it was the city, with its diversity of people and its surroundings, both natural and constructed, which gave him "the directest proof yet of successful Democracy..."[19]

And it here where the fusion of the visions of Hamilton and Jefferson is finally realized.  For each, the "environments"of democracy were important to moral development, and were vital for the maintenance of democratic institutions.  As Mumford argued, the "spaces" of democracy must be democratic, or democracy will necessarily fail.  In the midst of our "suburban flight," we have tended to forget this important fact.  The American democratic ideal must be sensitive to the urban experience, with all of its diversity, development, pitfalls, and problems, to fully realize the democratic vision of American society. 


[1].  Contemporary proceduralists (particularly Habermas) argue that democratic institutions must remain culturally and morally neutral to secure the recognition of diversity.  On these grounds, both Hamilton and Jefferson would likely side with contemporary substantivists (like Sandel), and both would agree that democratic institutions are, at bottom, moral institutions.

[2].  Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-1785), "[t]hose who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people." (Contrast this with "[t]he merchant has no country (in volume XIV of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson))

[3].  Ralph Ketcham.  1969.  Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian Traditions:  `Visions` of National Character and Purpose.  Tiffin:  Heidelberg College Press.  p. 5

[4].  Broadus Mitchell.  1957.  Heritage from Hamilton.  New York:  Mentor.

[5].  Alexander Hamilton.  1787.  "Federalist #15.  The Federalist Papers.  New York:  Mentor.  p. 110.

[6].  Ralph Ketcham.  1969.  p. 7

[7].  Garry Wills.  1978.  Inventing America:  Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.  New York:  Vintage Books.  p. 358

[8].   Henry David Thoreau.  1907.  The Writings of Henry David Thoreau.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co. 

[9]. Robert Westbrook.  1991.  John Dewey and American Democracy.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press.  p. 385

[10].  Mumford argued that Dewy's writing was "as depressing as a subway ride."  Lewis Mumford.  1968.  The Golden Day (3rd Edition).  New York:  Dover.  p. 130-131, as quoted in Robert Westbrook. 1996.  John Dewey and American Democracy.  p. 381. 

[11].  Mumford.  1956.  The Urban Prospect.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace, and

World.  p. x.

[12]. ibid p. x

[13].  (John Dewey. 1936.  "Education and New Social Ideals."  in John Dewey:  The Later Works (Volume 11) ed. J. Boydston.  Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press..  p 168.

[14].  ibid.  p. 169

[15].  One exemplification of the sorts of social projects aimed at meeting the needs of a diverse citizenry are the parks projects developed by Frederick Law Olmsted.  For Olmsted, the urban park was idealized in its ability to provide constantly changing vistas, and to facilitate the interaction of groups of people from a wide diversity of backgrounds.  Eschewing the traditional, formal park settings of Western Europe for a more informal, interactive public space, Olmsted's parks effectively demonstrate the potential for the fusion of the urban and pastoral visions of American society.

[16].  Walt Whitman.  1871.  Democratic Vistas.  in The Portable Walt Whitman.  ed. Mark Van Doren.  (1945).  New York:  Penguin Books.  p. 335. 

[17].  ibid.

[18].  ibid.  p. 326-327

[19].  Walt Whitman.  1878.  "Human and Heroic New York.".  in The Portable Walt Whitman.  ed. Mark Van Doren.  (1945).  New York:  Penguin Books.  p. 532.